Just as Aerobic exercises improve your heart function and strengthen your muscles, breathing exercises can make your lungs more efficient among other benefits. When the lungs are healthy, breathing is natural and easy; you breathe in and out, with your diaphragm doing about 80 % of the work to fill your lungs with a mixture of oxygen and other gases and then to send the waste gas of carbon dioxide out.
Everyday functions of the body like digesting your food, moving your muscles, or even just thinking, need oxygen to obtain the needed energy to fuel all the living processes ; every part of your body needs oxygen to survive. When these processes happen, a gas called carbon dioxide is produced as a waste product. The job of your lungs is to provide your body with oxygen and to get rid of the waste gas, carbon dioxide.
The brain constantly gets signals from the body, which detects the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. The brain will send signals to the muscles involved in breathing and adjust your breathing rate, depending on how active you are.
When you are active, breathing can increase up to about 40-60 times a minute, to cope with the extra demand.The delivery of oxygen to the muscles also speed up, so they can do their job efficiently.The increase in your breathing also ensures that there is no build up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream .
Respiratory Function and non Respiratory Functions
The main breathing muscle is the Diaphragm. It is a thin skeletal muscle that sits at the base of the chest and separates the abdomen from the chest. Inhaling and exhaling are the Respiratory functions of the diaphragm. Other muscles associated with breathing, include the abdominal muscles and the muscles in between the ribs, called Intercostal muscles.
For the non respiratory functions, the diaphragm increases abdominal pressure to help the body get rid of vomit, urine, faeces; it also places pressure on the oesophagus to prevent acid reflux.
Because of the crucial role in breathing, there is need to protect the diaphragm by stretching and warming up before exercise by eating moderate portions of food at a time, limiting food that trigger heartburn or acid reflux and exercising within your limits.
Like any muscle, the diaphragm can be strengthened by special exercises. The best way to do this is through DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING or ABDOMINAL BREATHING.
Healthy lung tissue is elastic or stretchy in nature, so the muscles need to work to expand the chest to draw in air into the lungs. Signals from the respiratory centre in the brain travel down nerves to the diaphragm and other muscles. The diaphragm is pulled flat, pushing out the lower rib cage and abdomen. At the same time, the muscles between the the ribs pulls up the the rib cage up and out ; this expands the chest and draws air into the lungs.
Air is pulled into the nose or mouth and into the wind pipe( trachea), which divides into airways supplying the left and right lungs. The air passes through the airways, dividing another 15-25 times and finally into thousands of smaller airways, until the air reaches the air sacs.
The oxygen, contained in the air, from the air sacs in the lungs, moves to the tiny blood vessels called capillaries and into the blood. A protein called haemoglobin in the red blood cells, then carries the oxygen around the body. At the same time, carbon dioxide, that is dissolved in the blood , comes out of the capillaries back into the air sacs, ready to be breathed out. Blood with fresh oxygen is carried from the lungs to the left hand side of the heart, which pumps blood around the body through the arteries.
At rest, breathing out is mostly a passive process; the muscles that you use in breathing now relax and the elastic lungs push air out. When you exercise and the body needs to move air more quickly; the abdominal muscles and intercostal muscles provide the main drive for exhaling. The respiratory system works, so that you breathe in and out comfortably at rest, where the least effort is required to move air; however, when you exercise, you need to move more air. To achieve this, bigger or quicker breaths are needed or usually, both.
When the lungs are healthy, the diaphragm does most of the work of inhaling to bring in fresh air and exhaling to get carbon dioxide and other waste gases out of the lungs.
However, in the presence of challenges like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease(COPD) and other similar respiratory challenges such as asthma, the lungs tend to lose some of their elasticity or stretchiness , so they don’t go back to the original state when you exhale. Losing lung elasticity can cause air to build up in the lungs, so that there will be not much space for the diaphragm to contract for you breathe in oxygen. Consequently , you cannot take in as much oxygen as a result of the air trapped in the lungs and this will limit the level of oxygen you need for exercise and other physical activities.
Over time, with the diaphragm not working to full capacity due to having less room to contract as a result of the trapped air in the lungs, the body starts using other muscles in the neck, back and chest for breathing; this translates into lower oxygen levels .
BREATHING EXERCISES can help force out the air build-up in the lungs; this will help increase the level of oxygen in the blood and also strengthen the diaphragm.
This is also called ABDOMINAL BREATHING OR BELLY BREATHING. Start with breathing in through your nose, filling up your belly with air, placing your hands on your belly, on help concentrate on the air going in and out, paying attention to how your stomach fills up with air; ( be aware of your belly rising and falling). Then breathe out through your mouth at least 2-3 times as long as you breathe in; for example, you can breathe in counting 5 and breathe out counting 10-15. Ensure your neck and shoulders are relaxed as you retrain your diaphragm to take on the work of helping to fill and empty your lungs. Practice diaphragmatic breathing 5-10 minutes, 3-4 times a day.
This simple breathing technique makes you slow down your pace of breathing by having you apply deliberate effort in each breath .
To do it, relax your neck and shoulders, keeping your mouth closes, inhale through your nose for 2 counts, purse your mouth as if you want to whistle and exhale slowly through pursed lips for a count of 4.
You can practice pursed lips breathing at any time ; it is especially useful during activities such as bending, lifting or stair climbing. It is useful to practice this breathing 4-5 times a day when you begin in order to correctly learn the breathing pattern.
This breathing technique uses Imagery or Focus Word and Phrases.
You can choose a focus word that makes you Smile , feel relaxed or that is simply neutral e.g. Words like “Peace” or “Relax” etc. As you build your breath focus practice, you can start with a 10 minute session.Gradually increase the duration until your sessions are at least 20 minutes.
To do it, sit or lie in a comfortable place, bring your awareness to your breaths without trying to change how you are breathing; Alternate between normal and deep breaths a few times. Notice any differences between normal breathing and deep breathing .Notice how your abdomen expands with deep inhalation. You can imagine that the air you inhale brings waves of calm and peace ; mentally say “Inhaling calm and peace”. Imagine that the air you exhale washes away tension and anxiety; you can say to yourself “Exhaling tension and anxiety”
Deep Breathing helps to relieve shortness of breath by preventing air from getting trapped in your lungs and helping you to breathe more fresh air. It may help you feel more relaxed.
To do this, while standing , draw your elbows slightly back, to allow your chest to expand , take a deep inhalation through your nose, retain your breath for a count of 5, then slowly release your breath by exhaling through your nose.
Resonant breathing, also known as Coherent breathing, is when you breathe at a rate of 5 full breaths per minute. You can achieve this rate by inhaling and exhaling for a count of 5. To do this, Inhale for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5 per minute; Continue this breathing pattern for at least a few minutes.
Breathing at this rate maximises your heart rate variability, reduces stress and according to a 2017 study, can reduce symptoms of depression when combined with lyengar yoga.
Each of the 5 Breathing Exercises discussed, among others that exist, have different benefits. It’s worthwhile to see the one that is the best match for you. When it is hard to sleep, focusing on your breath may help; breathing exercises help to calm the mind and body to help you fall asleep.
Breathing exercises can help you relax, because they make your body feel like it does when you are already relaxed. Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body ; this is because, when you breath deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax.
Breathing exercises also reduce tension and are easy to learn; You can do them whenever you want and no special tools or equipment are needed to do them.
Different breathing exercises can be done to see which works best for you.

Caroline Ademiluyi is a Lagos based Pharmacist.